Intrepid Kingston Grandma braves polar plunge for African AIDS victims

Gail McTague took plunge number one on Jan. 2, 2022. Submitted photo.

Local grandmother, Gail McTague, is once again ready to brave the icy waves of Lake Ontario to raise funds for grandmothers in Africa.

McTague, a member of Kingston Grandmother Connection (KCG) is making her second annual polar plunge on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. She hopes to stay in the frosty waters of Portsmouth Olympic Harbour – where January temperatures average around 2.8 degrees Celsius – for five minutes to raise much-needed awareness and funds for African families decimated by the AIDS Pandemic.

McTague says her polar proclivity began “out of pure orneriness” when she challenged her sons, both in their 40s, to jump into Calabogie Lake for a dip while celebrating Thanksgiving at the cottage there in 2020. Then she did it again at Easter.

One of her sons has an interest in the Wim Hof Method, which focuses on breathing techniques and cold water immersion to “master” one’s mind and body. Practitioners, like those here in Kingston, use a series of conscious breathing exercises and calculated immersion in cold water to tap into some of the perceived benefits of the method, which include increased energy levels, better sleep, and reduced stress. 

McTague said she “didn’t do any of that,” but really loves the “amazing feeling of having fire inside you when you [feel] you’re made of ice.”

Last year, she did it a few more times throughout the fall and then decided she wanted to do it at New Year’s to “raise money for the Grannies.”

Kingston Grandmother Connection (KGC) is a group of women involved in supporting The Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmother to Grandmother Campaign and Help Lesotho. Both of these highly-regarded Canadian Charities support programs in 15 African countries aimed at helping African grandmothers and their families.

According to their website, KGC was formed in response to the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, which launched in 2006 as the AIDS pandemic swept across the continent of Africa, taking the lives of nearly an entire generation — 35 million people perished leaving a crisis faced by grandmothers who struggled to raise millions of children orphaned by AIDS.

Further, KGC and other grandmother groups, “support the life-enhancing programs run by grandmothers in Africa and the community-based organizations that support them in amplifying the voices and expertise of grandmothers in Africa, showing the world that leadership by older women is critical in reclaiming hope and rebuilding resilience across communities.”

A second important charity championed by KGC is Help Lesotho, a non-profit organization registered in both Canada and Lesotho that delivers grassroots mental health support and training programs in rural communities in Lesotho, a country in southern Africa.

Nearly one in four people in Lesotho are HIV-positive. An entire generation was lost to this epidemic, leaving a massive cohort of orphaned children. Additionally, 86 per cent of girls and women in Lesotho report having experienced gender-based violence, and half of Lesotho’s population lives in poverty, with much higher rates in rural areas where Help Lesotho works. 

Image of the continent of Africa with small green area depicting Lesotho.
According to Help Lesotho’s website, Lesotho, in the southern region of the African continent, is “a forgotten country plagued by HIV/AIDS,
gender-based violence and poverty.”

McTague has travelled to both South Africa and Uganda, and has seen firsthand the beauty of the landscapes and the amazing work of non-government organizations working cooperatively there to help. “The need is extraordinary,” she says, noting that grandmothers there are often raising a number of grandchildren whose parents have died of AIDS, doing so without organized healthcare and having to raise their own food. She really believes the programs supported by KGC use the money and “incredible volunteerism” to benefit those in desperate need.

According to McTague, last year’s polar plunge “raised over $4,000,” but she jokes that this year “it seems like everybody is doing it” and it is not such a novelty.

According to KGC communications officer, Deb Ruse, “KGC is best known for our Fall Market for Africa, but through the COVID years when we were not able to host indoor events, we began to raise funds in other ways, usually outdoors. Gail’s exciting Polar Plunge is her personal initiative and was a huge success in January 2022.”

Trendy or not, KGC is welcoming the community to come out and cheer on Gail as she takes the plunge on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. At the same time, the community is encouraged to help KGC help Africans in need. Donations will be collected on-site and are also welcome in advance. To donate, visit the Kingston Grandmother Connection Polar Plunge event page.

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